Composers Forum is a daily web log that allows invited contemporary composers to share their thoughts and ideas on any topic that interests them--from the ethereal, like how new music gets created, music history, theory, performance, other composers, alive or dead, to the mundane, like getting works played and recorded and the joys of teaching. If you're a professional composer and would like to participate, send us an e-mail.
Judith makes a great point: there's an important distinction to be made between inspiration (idea) and the act (process) of creation. There's nothing particularly unusual about John Adams's dream (see Inspiring Tales below) -- everyone has dreams -- or even his desire to realize his dream through music. The important thing was the degree of concentration, commitment and craftsmanship that took him from that initial idea to the final work. That process, so vividly described in the Rollo May quote, is what artists are really addicted to.
posted by Lawrence Dillon
In 'The Courage to Create' psychiatrist Rollo May writes of the creative
moment as being virtually the same, physiologically, as the 'fight-or-flight' syndrome:
Pin-point focus; heightened production of adrenaline; signals of hunger/ thirst disregarded; time stops; disregard of extraneous stimuli (phones, doorbells, non-relevant conversations,etc. ) -- in short, the rest of the world disappears. Only the artistic problem to be worked through remains, grabbing every attentive neuron. For some of us, this paramount, all-consuming experience is part of the pull to return again and again to the arena of creative challenge.
NB This is not Inspiration, but rather manifestations of the act of
posted by Judith Lang Zaimont
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
In addition to the more common reference to creative thought, the word inspiration means a drawing in of breath, and thatís the way I prefer to think of it: inspiration should be like breathing, something healthy individuals do naturally, not something one sits around and waits for. Adamsís dream ship, Stravinskyís harmony, Zaimontís vacuum cleaner and Salvageís Faure recording are all triggers to a heightened awareness and affirmation of an unconscious constant.
When is inspiration hard to come by? Just think of the things that make breathing a struggle.
Regarding where I get my inspiration---I truly have no idea. If I knew, I'd be able to tap into it more frequently. Many times, I think I write just to prove to myself that I still can. Several times, I thought my last work really was going to be my last work. I do think that one is inspired by all the music one has listened to, both good and bad. But that isn't the complete answer. So I'd have to say it's idiopathic. It's also more entertaining that way.
posted by David Toub
Inspiration: A Tiny Tale
Inspiration for me can come from anywhere.
The example I most often give: One day (while in grad school) I was vacuuming the living room rug and needed something to counterbalance such mindless activity. After 'tuning in' to the machine's electrical Bb, I began imagining a Mideastern drone instrument, and proceeded to write a florid wide-range soprano melody above, in looping draped phrases, using made-up nasals (since I speak no Mideast language).
From almost nothing, something.
posted by Judith Lang Zaimont
I was just reminded of a story Harold Shapero told me once: When he was young (and, I think, foolish) he asked Stravinsky what the secret of inspiration was. Stravinsky thought a minute and said, "I think it's the harmony."
posted by Rodney Lister
Let's talk about inspiration. What is it? Where does it come from? Most of you probably know the story of Harmonielehre, John Adams' breakthrough composition that allowed him to move beyond minimalism. He told Jonathan Cott in an interview, that in a dream he saw himself "driving across the...Bay Bridge, and looking out saw a huge tanker in the bay. It was an image of immense power and gravity and mass. And while I was observing the tanker, it suddenly took off like a rocket ship with an enormous force of levitation. As it rose out of the water, I could see a beautiful brownish-orange oxide on the bottom part of its hull. When I woke up the next morning, the image of those huge [E-minor chords with which the work begins] came to me, and the piece was off like an explosion." Most inspiring moments may be less exciting than that but I would be interested in hearing some stories about where ideas come from.
posted by Jerry Bowles
Brian Sacawa discusses, I think very compellingly, how a performer or composer develops or finds a personal "voice." Brian's description of how he went about developing his own voice rings true to me, and now I'm interested in thinking about what we mean by "voice" anyway.
"Voice" exists at an interesting confluence between Style and Technique. (As a composer it is easier for me to discuss this issue with regard to composition -- some of it may or may not apply to performance, and I would be interested to hear a performer discuss the issue.) Finding a personal voice tends to be seen a lot like going through a few different jobs before settling on a career -- maybe you are an admin assistant for a year or so, and then a pizza delivery person, and you try doing some acting, and then finally you realize that what you really want to do is go to law school, and you do, and then you're a "lawyer."
Bartok was, as I recall, a bit of a failure as a Romanticist, but he found his voice in doing weird things to folk music. Steve Reich was a frustrated grad-student, dutifully turning out "serialist" pieces until he heard Terry Reilly and discovered Phasing. I tried to be a Neo-romantic, and dabbled in high-energy post-serial atonality in college and finally found my "voice" in post-minimalism. All of these voice discoveries correspond to stylistic conversions, but obviously there's more going on than settling into a particular genre. After all, Stravinsky's late atonal work is still clearly Stravinsky. Did he change voices, or just genres? And why is it still Stravinsky? -- There must be some element of "voice" that carried over.
And so we arrive at "technique." By "technique" I mean a composer's personal strategies for dealing with the details of his/her material -- harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, etc. How long are my phrases likely to be? How do I like to mutate my motivic materials? Which kinds of chord changes do I gravitate toward? How do I write counterpoint? Certainly my strategies for all of those elements have remained relatively constant through my (admittedly short) career while I have gone through a few different Stylistic periods. I would guess that a careful analysis of Stravinsky would reveal similar consistancy.
So we might say that a big part of finding your "voice" is arriving at a place where you finally have your technique down AND you are writing in the genre that makes you happy. But in saying that I've snuck in a third component: skill. Can I say I've found my voice if my technique is bad? That seems open for debate. And what about uniqueness. If I'm brilliant at writing pieces that sound exactly like they were written by Beethoven, have I found my own voice? Again, I'm not sure.
posted by Galen H. Brown